“Mom” of The Hilltop

Back in the days before fast food joints, every town had a “Mom” and a Hilltop Restaurant. This Hilltop was owned by Mom and Pop Pennell in Athens, Ohio. (You can click on any photo to make it larger.)

Athens Messenger Chief Photographer Bob Rogers and I practically lived there. It was just up the hill from our photo darkroom, it was far enough from downtown and the university that parking wasn’t a problem, it had good homecooking and comfort foods in large quantities, and, most importantly, it was cheap. Oh, man, I just got a craving for her hamburger steak with gravy, mashed potatoes and corn.

Lots of hustle and smiles

“Pop” worked the kitchen and grill. “Mom” waited tables, handled the cash register and acted as traffic cop behind the counter. It was the kind of place where the regulars would flirt with the waitresses, then pull family photos out of their wallets to show around. The highway patrol headquarters was just down the road, so this was a good place to meet troopers on “neutral territory” to swap war stories.

A time for reflection

One day, Bob and I did a picture page on “Mom.” I took this photo, and Bob had a more arty shot of the restaurant’s neon sign shot through the window. That pretty much defined our shooting styles: I was the more literal journalist and he was an artist with a camera.

Here was the copy that ran below this photo: “You meet a lot of people in 10 years at the same location. At closing time, when business starts slowing down, Mom can sometimes be coaxed to talk about some of her favorite customers. Like the college students from years back who still visit her, or the hitchhiking servicemen she’s given money for bus tickets. The end of the day is a time for reflection, and Mom Pennell, owner of The Hilltop Restaurant, has a lot to reflect on.

The morning the story ran, we stopped in to get her reaction. We watched customer after customer come in with the page cut out so they could give her a copy. That’s when I realized that I had the ability to make someone Queen for a Day.

I’ve always said that my goal was to do stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things. I liked to photograph people who were unacknowledged by the paper except when they were born, when they got married, when they got a speeding ticket, and when they died. Somebody else could have the celebrity beat.

Good coffee in an honest mug

The Hilltop was a place where you could get a good cup of coffee served in a heavy mug. Even though the portions were big, I always managed to save space for a slice of her homemade pie or a huge ice cream sundae. At the time, I weighed all of 132 pounds, so I could get away with it. Or, maybe it just caught up with me in my 40s.

Visiting with Bob

That’s my partner Bob. We liked to think we were her favorite customers, but I’m sure that all of the regulars felt they held that honor.

It’s tough being a “Mom”

“Mom” was always upbeat in front of customers, but when she thought nobody was looking, she’d let her guard down. It was a tough job. I don’t think The Hilltop was open seven days a week, but it opened early for the breakfast trade and stayed open for dinner. On top of that, “Mom” had to do the baking. She might sit down to pass a few words with a customer, but those breaks were short and seldom. I don’t know how old she was, but even a younger person would find it hard to be on your feet as many hours as she was.

Where was Cape’s “Mom”

I’d nominate Wayne’s Grill’s Dorothy for a “Mom.”

The Colonial Tavern/Inn was Dad’s favorite morning coffee stop.

18 Replies to ““Mom” of The Hilltop”

  1. My “Mom” was Helen McCormack of McCormack’s Grocery on the Northeast end of Cape. In the early 60’s the grocery was similar to a quick stop in that it had most everything but no true cafe. You could get a made to order cold cut sandwich and a cold drink. The McCormack’s also had the Harley-Davidson dealership so I pretty much lived there during their open hours. Bill and Hellen McCormack had as much, if not more, influence on my upbringing as my parents did. To this day their youngest son, Rob, is my best friend who was visiting me just today as we made plans for our motorcycle ride into the Smokie Mountains later this week. Bill died a few years ago and I got a chance to tell him how appreciative I was of his and Hellen’s guidance. Recently I took the time to tell Hellen. They have been great folks to me and so many others in this area.

  2. The Shucks, owners of “The Barn” drive-in on S. Kingshighway, would fit the role.

    I collect old soft drink bottles, but don’t have a “Double Cola” if that is what it was in the first photo.

    1. You have sharp eyes. Yes, indeed, it did say “Double Cola.” I looked at one frame that the first half of the sign, and this one with the last half.

      I’m sure I drank Double Cola, but it wasn’t a favorite. I think it was like an RC Cola. More of a dry, “peppery” taste and less sweet and tart than a Coke.

  3. I remember Wimpy’s. Mrs. Louis would often be working there and serving customers at the counter. When you ordered your food, she would always suggest a piece of pie of which she would ad that she made them herself.

  4. My Mom (and Dad) owned HILLCREST BBQ Drive-In just across the street from the big StarVue Drive-In Movie screen. They both worked long hours and required us kids (my brother and two sisters) to work with them. I used to fuss and complain that I never got to see my friends during the summer vacations, but it was great experience for us because by the time we graduated from highschool, we already had working experience. I never had a problem finding a job. We would have to sweep, mop, fill the soda and beer coolers, wash dishes, wait tables and curbhop. Met a lot of people there from both Cape and Jackson. A lot of college kids would come out and dance on Friday and Saturday nights. Dad built a beer garden outside with lots of covered picnic tables, an archery court, horseshoe pits and several big rings of flowers to enjoy. I’ve always wished that we still had that place when Jack and I moved back to Cape after living in California during his stint in the Marines. Couldn’t handle all the work it took today!

    1. I asked for a good place to eat when I was working on a story about a successful reading program in a tiny town in the Florida Panhandle. I was directed to Green’s Oyster Bar, a hole-in-the-wall place you’d never have stopped in had someone you trusted not sent you there.

      They had the best seafood I’ve ever eaten. It was a Mom ‘n’ Pop ‘n’ Kids place where the whole family worked. Dad and mother would cook, and the kids would shuck oysters, wait tables, wash dishes and do whatever was needed. They had a little girl about eight who would practice playing her violin. Instead of gravel, the parking lot was covered with crushed oyster shells.

      I did a story about the place and made it a point to stop there whenever we were headed back to Cape.

      Unfortunately, the owners decided to expand the place and turn it into a sports-oriented bar. Within two years, they had gone under. Sports bars are a dime a dozen; places like Green’s Oyster Bar are a rarity.

  5. That place is Pete’s in Wentzville, Mo. It started out as an A&W but that franchise got too demanding so Pete went out on his own. I have breakfast there every Saturday morning I can, not because of the food which is good, but the sociality of the place. I get to visit with a half-dozen “regulars”. Jan and I got to have breakfast several times with Sherry (Huff) and Don Swanson before they moved to St James. Yes, it reminds me of Wimpy’s, family owned, except Pete hires high school girls from St Dominic where as the Lewis’ hired mostly high school guys, as I recall. The old business highway 61 that runs in front of the restaurant is now renamed Pete Luetkenhaus Parkway.

    One final comment-one day I asked Pete if he remembered the Gastains that owned the A&W in Cape before the Popps. I told him that I had been in school and scouts with Jim and Bob. He did know them but neither of us had seen that family in years. I believe they moved to Michigan.

    1. Well, I shot between 25,000 and 35,000 frames a year and I was in Athens for three years. Where would you like them sent?

      If you’d like to see examples of my Ohio work, put Athens, or Ohio or Ohio University in the search box.

  6. She was my grandmother, an a wonderful person. She loved her kids an grandkids with all her heart. Not a day goes by i don,t think of her an all the great times we shared, not to mention her great cooking. Thanks so much for this wonderful article.

    1. Steve,

      She might have been your grandmother, but she was Mom to all us regular customers. I’m going top be stopping in Athens for the first time since 1993. It’ll hurt not to be able to see her and The Hilltop.

      I’m glad you found the story.

  7. Thank you so much for this article and the pictures of my Grandma Pennell. She worked so hard and was a wonderful woman, mother and grandmother. My sister, Christy is also pictured with Grandma. Grandma and Grandpa were Mom and Pop Pennell to many. Grandma and Grandpa had the Hilltop for 13 years and then my mother, Rita Pennell Canter had it for 7 years. A lawnmower accident caused her to give it up before she was ready. She loved it as much as they did. The pictures are priceless to us. Thanks again!

  8. Hey Bob Rogers, I’m John Halley. I’ve been the photographer at the Messenger for years. We recently got a neg scanner and I’m finding great pix from the ’60s. I think I’ve got a self portrait of YOU. How can I get it to you?

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